Local News

Warrants issued for Chapel Hill man accused of stealing plane

Posted August 17, 2011 11:50 a.m. EDT
Updated August 19, 2011 1:32 p.m. EDT

— Authorities issued arrest warrants Wednesday for a Chapel Hill man who is accused of stealing a plane and crashing it in Graham Tuesday.

Curtis Rene Mellott, 46, is believed to be in the Chapel Hill or Durham area. He faces felony possession of stolen property charges in Alamance County and felony larceny charges in Orange County. Federal charges are possible if Mellott was flying without a valid pilot's license.

He may be driving a gold-colored BMW SUV, said Alamance County spokesman Randy Jones. On Wednesday afternoon, investigators received a tip that Mellott was staying at the Carolina Duke Inn in Durham, but by the time they arrived at this hotel, they believe he had checked out, Jones said.

Mellott is accused of stealing a single-engine Piper PA-32R-301T from Horace Williams Airport in Chapel Hill and crashing it into a grove of trees about 25 miles away in Graham on Tuesday.

Blood was found in the cockpit and two K-9 units followed tracked the scent out of the woods, but that's where they lost him.

"He's going to have some marks on him because he took a pretty bad fall from the sky," Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson said.

Hillsborough businessman Larry Warren, who owns the plane, said he has never heard of Mellott and doesn't know why anyone would target his plane.

Authorities believe the plane was stolen sometime between 9 p.m. Monday, when Warren left it at the airport, and 6 a.m. Tuesday. Airport employees are only on site from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The search began around 7 a.m. Tuesday when an emergency beacon alerted the Civil Air Patrol, a volunteer service of the U.S. Air Force, to a plane in trouble. The plane was later found off Wildlife Club Road near N.C. Highway 87 around 12:15 p.m.

Johnson said they might have caught Mellott sooner if it hadn't taken five hours to find the downed plane.

"If they would have known the plane was down and we could have gotten (there) at 7, we would have got the individual before he got out of the woods," he said.

The sheriff speculated that the crash happened because the pilot didn't know how to switch gas tanks – one of which was empty – on the aircraft, and it ran out of fuel.

Warren said authorities came to his office Tuesday and asked him if he was OK and if he knew where his plane was. He told them he was fine and that his plane was at the airport. Warren said he was shocked to hear that his plane was stolen and had crashed.

He checked the instrument panel at the crash scene and determined that whoever stole the plane flew for nearly two hours before crashing. He wants to know whether the thief was "on a mission" or "joyriding."

He says the plane would have easily started up for a thief, once the person had broken into it.

Estimating his loss at $600,000, Warren said he wants the person responsible to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Randy Young, a public safety spokesman for University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which runs Horace Williams Airport, said this is the first time a plane has ever been stolen there. He said the airport is secure. 

Vehicles can only get in with a security code through a locked gate, but pedestrians have open access to the lots where small, private planes are parked, Young said.

Aviation attorney James Crouse said the security at Horace Williams is the norm for small facilities. He said it surprises him that planes, with their lightweight doors and windows and lack of heavy locks, are not stolen more frequently.

"The aircraft itself is ripe for being broken into," Crouse said. "Aircraft are not made to be secure; they are meant to fly in the air."